En Vogue: The Fashion of MIlitary Camouflage
Camouflage paint in various colors and cryptic patterns was used by German, French, and other forces during World War I to decrease the visibility of bunkers, tanks, and even ships, but camouflage was not widely used to protect troops during that war. In the 1920s, the French military conducted extensive research into camouflage, and other armed forces soon followed suit; camouflage cloth as such dates to the period between the two World Wars. During World War II, camouflage paint and netting were extensively used to disguise combat vehicles and forward bases, and troops on all sides used camouflage-cloth combat uniforms or tunics in some situations (including white outfits for winter, arctic, and mountain operations). A problem arose in that camouflage cloth made it difficult for troops to distinguish friend from foe under combat conditions. Partly for that reason, American soldiers in WWII largely abandoned camouflage gear except for their helmets, with netting covers into which twigs, grass, and leaves could be inserted.
The military has long-fascinated North American culture. Why wouldn’t it? The US is a country defined by its military victories, from the Revolutionary War to Iraq. For the US, the military represents values, freedom, and a sense of coming home. Perhaps this is why so many designers focus their fashions on military-styled and camouflaged clothing.
While camouflaged fashion seems like a modern trend, it’s far from it. The wealthy have loved furs and animals prints for centuries and what better representation of camouflage than wearing the skins of camouflaging animals. Some sources say camouflage print first appeared in fashion in 1919, shortly after WWI, and the first military camouflage pattern was created by the French.
Camoulfeurs, local artisans taken directly from Parisian art schools, handpainted the first camouflage and created a “lizard” pattern, which consisted of spots on a tan fabric. Painted camouflage was not the first time artists influenced clothing, but it may have been the first time artists influenced military clothing for a whole nation. German, French, and other forces used camouflage during WWI, but it wasn’t until after the French conducted extensive camouflage research in the 1920s that it became more accepted.
WWI also brought another type of camouflage, called dazzle camouflage. This technique paints ships with black and white stripes in hopes to confuse enemies. This form of camouflage was directly influenced by cubist artists like Picasso, Edward Wadsworth, and Burnell Poole, who were influenced by dazzle designs. The Vorticism trend of art, inspired by both cubism and dazzle camouflage, used abstract, geometric patterns and harsh colours.
As camouflaged military uniforms blossomed during WWII, so did the idea of using camouflage in fashion. Almost as soon as the US government introduced camouflage to the military in the 1940s, fashion magazine Vogue contained a detailed article describing camouflage clothing and what it did for the troops.
It wasn’t until the late 1960s and early 1970s that camouflage clothing really took off. The youth of these decades wore camouflage prints as a form of ironic protests against the highly objectionable Vietnam War. Injured veterans wore their fatigues not to commemorate their time in Vietnam, but to highlight their brokenness from the conflict.
Once camouflage began to be used as an objection to the Vietnam war, no one held back from using it. Famous modern artist Andy Warhol used camouflage in his art, in both a self-portrait and in brightly coloured prints (below), which are credited for pushing the camouflage pattern to the limits of art and fashion. Suddenly, art, design, pop culture infiltrated modern life, painting the camouflage print on everything from toys to shoes to bibles to adhesive bandages. Designers Christian Dior, Gina Couture, Jean Paul Gaultier, and Yves St. Laurent all dipped their toes into the camouflage trend, designing everything from bathing suits to ball gowns with the iconic print.
In the 80s, a growing streetwear scene brought camo to the everyday person. After Public Enemy wore camouflage on their 1988 album, youth began to emulate the style and clothing brands started to create their own patterns. Sneakers, especially, had a camouflage transformation and many camouflage patterns are iconic to the brands even to today. Brands like Supreme, Bape, Adidas, The Hundreds, Ssur, and more have all pioneered unique clothing influenced by iconic camouflage patterns.
Now, camouflage has moved past the battlefield or the hunter’s lodge and resides in our everyday life. We see it in advertisements, on clothing, on household items, and on high fashion. Designers fielded the pattern on a wide variety of clothing starting in the early 90s with grunge and then renewing the designs in 2012, exotically mixing colour, patterns, textures, and styles to create a wonderful and vibrant camouflage trend.
Celebrities and fashion icons have taken to this fashion trend and the public emulates them -- whether these trends are casual day-to-day outfits, work attire, dressy, or high fashion -- camouflage fashion is directly influenced by celebrities and urban streetwear. Camouflage is a staple of modern wardrobes and can be found in almost every store, every walk-of-life, and for every occasion.
Why do we love camo? Why do we want it in our lives, on our clothes, and through our “stuff”? Stylist and fashion consultant Stephen Mann said, "In fashion the pattern is always performing the opposite of its designed purpose. It's making the wearer stand out rather than cloaking them, as it does in the field."
Modern (fashion) camouflage combines the feminine with the masculine, the home with nature, the mystique with the familiar. Perhaps camouflage brings us back to our rustic roots, to a time where relied on ourselves and the bush. Perhaps it’s just the simple design, reminding us of artistic paint splatters on a smock. Whatever the reason, camouflage fashion isn’t just a trend; it’s here to stay, a classic pattern with us for the long haul.